The Lake Sturgeon (Acepenser fulvescens)

MelRussoBy Carmelo “Mel” Russo
This year, two different friends of mine have seen two different specimens of sturgeon in Cayuga Lake. Unfortunately, both fish were dead. Although  indigenous and once abundant in Cayuga Lake, Seneca Lake, and the canals, the species is now rare. The Acepenser are large, scary looking lunkers that may reach seven feet in length and weigh up to 300 pounds. Both specimens reported were about five feet – one floating and one at the bottom. Even though a stocking program has recently been underway in New York State both specimens should have been well over several decades old and were probably not of stocked origin.

Because of their formidable appearance, the species is often used as an attempted explanation for sightings of “Old Greenie” in Cayuga, as well as the legendary “Seneca Lake Monster.” However, both “monsters” were reported to have had teeth. Sturgeons only have mouths with some big lips. Indeed, even though the mouth area is quite serious looking, it is a harmless but useful tool for the fish. The mouth and lips, located on the ventral side of the gentle beast, are protrusable. They are preceded by four sensory barbels (fleshy whiskers) that can detect food in the bottom material along with the electroreceptive snout of the fish. This well adapted ingestive structure and its accessories are able discover, suck up, and strain out the food organisms from bottom material. This enables the sturgeon to produce some of the most prized flesh among all fresh water species. In addition its eggs are highly revered as caviar. These delectable attributes are undoubtedly responsible for the decline of sturgeon populations in the Great Lakes Basin.

Sturgeons are slow growing but may attain ages of more than 200 years. They reach sexual maturity after about 20 years. It is no wounder that after such a long wait for sex, that they may release some 3 million eggs in one season.

Acepenser fulvescens is of biological interest because, like the gars (previous watershed edition), it represents a very primitive group of fishes that has been present throughout most of the earth’s biogeologic history. Because if its large size, the lake sturgeon has been wrapped with many undeserving titles such as the “jaws,” “wretched beastie” and “monster.” Because of its harmless, non-aggressive nature, however, it might more appropriately be referred to as “lips.”

Edited by Susan Backlund
Source: Hubbs and Lagler; Fishes of the Great Lakes Region 2004
© copyright Mel Russo 2016